What’s in a Name?


Europeans come to North America (at the outset, primarily from Western Europe) because either their living conditions had deteriorated, onerous laws had been imposed, or religious persecution had intensified.  They wished to escape the Old world and begin anew in America.  They sought and found a new identity, and the longer they remained here the more distant the memories of the lands they had left.  On the other hand the new territory was in many ways wild, alien and unpredictable, and so they often grew nostalgic, found comfort in recalling the places they had left.  Furthermore, the settlements they established were, for the most part, modest in size and population.  They needed somehow to convince themselves that permanent and impressive towns and cities would ultimately arise there, that these population clusters would develop into sizable centers of activity.

The consequence of all this was that they chose repeatedly to assign names from the Old World to places where they congregated.  Predictably, because a majority of the early settlers arrived from the British Isles, many of the place names, especially in the Northeast, derived from English counterparts.  So, in Massachusetts, small communities chose names such as Winchester, Yarmouth, Plymouth, Northampton, Ipswich, Bristol, Cambridge and naturally Oxford as well.  In Connecticut such well-known English towns as Avon, Cheshire, Danbury, Essex, Greenwich, New London, New Britain, Stratford and Windsor were selected.  In Pennsylvania, 73 communities traced their names back to England and in New York the total was 61.  Interestingly, because mostly New Englanders drifted West into Ohio, over sixty towns there adopted English place names, including Liverpool, Dover, Coventry, Bristol and Brighton.  Naturally, as new territories and states opened in the West, English influence declined markedly as seen in the fact that there were but seven English place names in in California, three in south Dakota, two in Kentucky and one in Iowa.

But that didn’t exhaust the possibilities.  In time immigrants arrived from areas other than Great Britain and predictably place names came to reflect that fact.  Consider, for example, such towns as Dublin, Texas; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Milan, Tennessee; Amsterdam and Copenhagen, New York; Berlin, New Hampshire; Naples Florida; Moscow, Idaho, and in Minnesota Oslo, Upsala and Belgrade.

Americans also dreamed big, attempted to recruit potential settlers to a particular location by suggesting that a promising future awaited them there.  What might help they, concluded, was to appropriate the names of ancient cities that had once been the envy of their age.  And so we have such places as Troy, New York; Corinth and Palmyra Maine; Toledo, Ohio; Cairo, Illinois; Memphis Tennessee; Venice and Vienna, Illinois, and Athens, Georgia.  How could one doubt the prospects of such places given their distinguished pedigrees?

Everyone who came to our shores in time became loyal Americans, but many still thought it wise, practical and comforting to link themselves, if only by name, to their places of origin or to cities widely recognized and long celebrated.


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